The Bad Apple: Group Poison

Our final project group last year had a guy that the study refers to as a ‘jerk’. Someone that would complain that things wouldn’t work and that ideas were bad. Not once did he propose an alternative. I’m telling you, I was dragged down at times by this guy as were others in our team. Luckily, our self appointed project manager was actually very good with people and pulled us back up - very motivating.

It had absolutely no effect on the jerk though. He continued to be a jerk.

Oh, you want to do it that way? Ok… rolls eyes and looks away
I’m not an angry/aggressive person, but I wanted to smack him in the head!

Care must be taken between the two extremes, groupthink at one end and futile iconoclasm at the other. There really genuinely are a ton of bad ideas in execution that will only rightfully provoke much criticism, as there a ton of bad ideas to be executed which are liable to provoke the kind of reaction from a reasonable person as would be expected from bad apple one or three.

I think the core differentiating factor is that critical people at least step up and volunteer alternatives, and refrain from ad hominem. There’s nothing wrong with direct and realistic criticism as long as it isn’t just a tactic for negative psychological manipulation. And for the other two types, they need to pick their projects better, the problem is, we all gotta eat in the end and a lot of the time it does indeed mean being stuck on ridiculous projects because that’s where the money is right at that moment.

Keep your options open and your head down in that situation. Why dress yourself up as a neat little scapegoat to take the blame for the failure of the project you’re almost sure is due any month now? Better to at least salvage what you can from the experience and come out the defeated but valiant hero.

Of course, if you are the bad apple, then getting rid of yourself can mean getting rid of the negative behaviours, as opposed to commiting ritual suicide. :stuck_out_tongue:

In my opinion, the study highlights the effect of a good leader rather than a bad apple.

If there is no good leader, the bad apple automatically becomes the most prominent (because he is the one expressing opinions, whatever they may be, the most) and by default the identity of the group and rest of the group tend to follow him.

So the study shows that groups tend to emulate the person with most influence.

I’ve worked in a few offices where I have seen what you call bad apples. After sitting down and asking them what can be done to make things better (this is called empowerment), I found it is very easy to bring them around and make them productive.

So in other words, you got rid of the bad apples. Like Jeff suggested.

What, did you assume the only way was to fire them? What gave you that idea?

The point is to not let a bad apple drag your team down. In real life, bad apples can (often) be converted to good ones, but you can’t let it lie, you have to take action!

@all the bad apples on this blog
Seriously, what’s with all the hate here recently? Jeff is a pretty average geek and he has been successful doing something that anyone reading this blog could have done as well. Yeah?

Boo-hoo! Get over it! Jeff did it, you sure as hell didn’t! You can choose to be jealous and grumpy or you can choose to be inspired and do something yourselves. Even if you just go create a personal Jeff hater’s blog, it would be more constructive than attacking him here.

Sort of a lead by example situation? And I agree, this illustrates the absence of good leadership as well (and to be honest lack of good leadership creates bad apples).

I’ve been a pretty rotten pessimist/slacker apple for a few months, and I haven’t been able to kill my team’s optimism.

Assuming linear contribution and a generally neutral approach to a group, 30-40% decline is exactly what I’d expect to see from the inclusion of a strong negative. The bad apple’s 25%, plus the increased effect of someone being willing to have a strong opinion, adds up quite nicely.

By linear contribution, I mean that all else being equal, a group’s work is the sum of its individual efforts: everyone contributes 25%.

By a neutral approach, I mean that in general, people are willing to let the Strong Talkers make decisions. Reducing conflict and a general sense of humility are strong disincentives towards having a strong opinion–people, quite wisely, bow to the group’s opinion by reducing the strength of their own.

So of course there was reduced productivity.

This has mostly been said by Rahul before me. Ah well.

Should we interpret the last paragraph as an indication that you’ll be leaving the SO team? :wink: It sounded so ominous.

I agree with Nabeshin Rahul - if the bad-apple was the one with the dominance, then they were the defacto leader, and an actor being paid to act in a certain way isn’t going to be so susceptible to dynamics which would otherwise change their behaviour, therefor their behaviour could easily dominate the group.

So the question is, do bad apples in the wild dominate the group in this same way? A kind of subversive leadership role.

OK, having listened to a bit of the podcast it seems the Jerk does indeed say you guys need to listen to the expert: me., bu tthis is only mentioned in the appendix, and that isn’t included in the PDF linked to in this post. So I’m sorry I doubted Jeff’s accuracy.

However, I’m not sure how relevant this study is to computing projects. A 45 minute business meeting is very different to a long term project.

My previous boss was the bad apple in the company, but to him, it looked like it was me…

The Depressive Pessimist will complain that the task that they’re doing isn’t enjoyable, and make statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.

It wasn’t enjoyable because it was always bound to end in failure. He would ask constantly if it was enjoyable. I think he was trying to get us to lie to spare his feelings, thinking that if we said it enough, we would start to believe it. I’m not a spare-the-feelings kinda guy when it’s designed to mask incompetence, let alone when it’s designed to set me up as a fall guy for it. Take it on the chin or improve yourself.

Doubting our ability to succeed wasn’t pessimism, it was experience. We managed one job on time and on budget, ever, and only then because it was something he couldn’t interfere in. Productivity shot up by about 50% or so whenever he took holiday (we measured). I had to make statements doubting our ability to succeed because the boss was running around telling clients no problem, we’ll have that done by the end of the week when it was a fortnight’s work and we had other jobs to do in the meantime. Allowing him to do that unchecked would make it worse.

The Jerk will say that other people’s ideas are not adequate, but will offer no alternatives himself. He’ll say ‘you guys need to listen to the expert: me.’

Again, I said this often, but I was right. He’d want us to take every quick-and-dirty option he ever came across, and expect elegant behaviour from the code. His ideas weren’t adequate. He did need to listen to me, and I was the expert. I did offer alternatives, but as they were always involved more time and expense, I’m sure they were as good as no alternative in his eyes. He certainly never took any notice.

The Slacker will say ‘whatever’, and ‘I really don’t care.’

Two years of the above, working huge overtime for little pay, slowly getting worse as the business failed with him at the helm, constantly taking the wrap for his incompetence, and you’d be pretty jaded too. All I wanted to do was get stuck into my work and keep it going - he made it absolutely impossible, had no idea he was doing so, and then wanted to have Friday hour-long meetings for the sole purpose of being able to say proactive a lot. I really didn’t care for pointless bullshit, but especially so when there was a week’s worth of work to do before Monday.

So, who was the bad apple? If you have someone who you think is a bad apple, how do you know that it’s not a perception forced by circumstance? What if he’s right?

I’m out of there now (working with a great team for employers who absolutely rock!), and lo and behold - I am no longer pessimistic, I’m surrounded by ideas that I don’t need to shoot down as inadequate, I care a lot and am valued as an employee. It ain’t rocket science.

i don’t know how exhaustive that study was, but from what i heard of group dynamics: every group needs certain roles to be filled.

Meaning given enough time people in a group fall into certain roles simply because no one else is playing that role.
So, what i’m saying is: if you fire one bad apple, i’m sure someone else will start to act like it sooner or later.

And my statements certainly wouldn’t qualify for Wikipedia as i can’t base any of them on facts or studies.

Another bad apple post.
Here we go.
Why don’t you just accept that you are not management material?

In the interest of not taking anyone’s word for anything, I’ve been trying to read the original paper. But as the site is blocked at work I can only read it on my phone, which isn’t very easy for a pdf. Therefore, I apologize in advance if I’ve missed something. But it does seem to me that the three types of bad apples described in this post are somewhat simplified.

In particular, what Jeff terms “The Jerk”, and is called “interpersonal deviant” in the report, is defined in this post as someone who criticizes other’s ideas, and says “you guys need to listen to the expert: me” quote in the paper. But in the paper this type is defined as someone who doesn’t understand workplace behavior, for example by making fun of people, making hurtful comments, swearing etc. Nothing in the definition about claiming to be an expert.

I’d be interested where the Jerk quote comes from, as I wouldn’t like to think that Jeff was deliberately tilting the definition to support his previous post.

Anyone else have a problem with taking the findings from a study about college students and applying them as one broad stroke to all other group interactions in life? My experiences of people and groups in college and in my career have been dramatically different.

I would revise the first sentence to read:
A recent episode of This American Life interviewed Wil Felps, a professor who conducted a sociological experiment demonstrating the surprisingly powerful effect of bad apples on college students.

Here is a good apple:

I think the strongest point is to put numbers (although of dubious validity) on this.
Repeating what was already commented on: in a group of 4 people, if one person is actively trying to sabotage the group’s efforts you’d pretty much expect about a 30% decrease in performance (how would you measure it?).
It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. But people don’t usually think about it, and so perhaps they don’t realize how much a bad apple can effect a team.

That said, I have some serious reservation about the study as presented here:
My biggest objection is that the experiment only deals with very short term goals, and temporary teams with virtually no previous cohesion.
Say we repeated this experiment for a more representative time (lets say 3 months), and a long term goal. Who’s to say that the team wouldn’t overcome this small obstacle and perform almost as well as other teams?
Perhaps we would find conclusion is that bad apples only delay the time it takes the team to really form and cooperate?
Perhaps long term teams with pessimistic, argumentative people (hey, like me!) actually perform BETTER, because there is always someone that can ask the hard questions, and prevent overt optimism?

The second objection is that the actor person actively sabotaged the team’s effort. After all, his/her goal was to prevent the team from performing their tasks, instead of accomplishing said task.
This situation is quite unlike most real world teams. Sometimes people are bad team players, but they seldom do it on purpose, and they are still out to achieve the task at hand.

To some up, the experiment (as described!) has little to no bearing on software development.

I’ve been reading for a while, never commented. It’s my go-to blog when I need some inspiration. Anyway, bad apples. I’m an employer, and I’ve found the negative effect of bad apples to be profound. It’s affected not only my company’s performance, but even my own personal outlook on life. Getting rid of that person is usually the only solution.

Recently, though, we had a previously good person that was having a really hard time and really irking my partner (who’s also my wife). I forced us to stick it out. I confronted the employee a few times. We were patient. We worked through it. Now the bad apple is a better apple than before, from a work perspective.

I guess what I’m saying is that good apples sometimes become bad apples. But their not always unrecoverable. It will take patience, but sometimes you can overcome and end up with a different, but still good apple. A tasty Asian pear, for example. Well, you get it…

So what do the bad apples do?

Can’t really add much to this. The research is incredibly interesting, to say the least.